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Joey Lawrence – Grown Up on Camera

Joey Lawrence in “Melissa and Joey.”

Joey Lawrence

Grown Up on Camera

by Deborah Wagner

When you think of Joey Lawrence, most people think “Whoa!” I know I do, thanks to the iconic catchphrase he made popular back in the 90’s while playing Joey Russo on the hit TV show Blossom.

Before becoming a teenage heartthrob on Blossom, Joey spent his adolescent years doing guests spots on other popular sitcoms like Diff’rent Strokes and Silver Spoons before landing his first recurring role on the 80’s hit Gimme a Break. 

Since Blossom ended in 1995, Joey has continued to act in films and made-for-TV movies, as well as in sitcoms including Brotherly Love (alongside his brothers Matt and Andy), Run of the House and Half & Half and the popular drama American Dreams. He also danced his way into third place in 2006 on ABC’s popular reality competition Dancing with the Stars.

Now at 34, Joey Lawrence is all grown up and this father of two is back on TV in the ABC Family’s original series Melissa & Joey that airs Tuesday nights at 8/7 Central. Starring beside his childhood friend Melissa Joan Hart – with whom he had also done the TV movie My Fake Fiancé – Joey portrays an unemployed commodities trader named Joe Longo who has turned live-in male nanny. He also lends his singing talents to the show – a passion which he has been exploring since his 90s hit single “Nothing My Love Can’t Fix” – performing the opening theme song “Stuck with Me.” Gaining popularity, Melissa & Joey has now been picked up for 20 episodes next season.

Recently, we sat down with Joey to talk about growing up in front of the camera, family, his new role as a “manny” and our mutual love for a school called Abington Friends.

I have two kids at Abington Friends School, where you graduated.

Really? That’s so cool. I loved that school. How long have they been there?

This is my daughter’s first year. She’s in kindergarten and my son is in third grade.

No way. It’s such a great school. They have a great campus too. The school store, I mean come on, the school store is awesome. It’s like 200 years old, that thing. And the meeting for worship house, it was just a great time. I was actually there when they built the Mueller Auditorium. I just have such great memories from my years there.

Melissa Joan Hart and Joey Lawrence in “Melissa and Joey.”

So, my first question is by ’94 when you actually graduated, you had already done Gimme a Break and you were working currently on Blossom. How difficult was that – to travel across the country while working in LA and then come back here to Abington Friends for school?

It wasn’t difficult because it was just what I was used to. I had been doing it ever since second grade. First grade, really. And 60% or 70% of my class were lifers so we were all there together since kindergarten. It made it very easy. There weren’t new groups of kids that I had to deal with or that didn’t know who I was. They were there with me from the beginning, so it never hit them overnight. Therefore, I was able to come back home and get right back into the groove of things and go on my cool country trips. Great stuff. It was really awesome.

That is cool.

Yes, it’s was a really great time in my life. It was incredible.

I really liked you in American Dreams. Would you like to do more of the dramatic roles, or do you prefer comedy to drama?

I like both. I can do both, so it’s just a matter of what makes sense at the right time. This seemed like a good project and I was able to have a lot of creative control on this one. I hadn’t been involved in the half hour in a long time, so to come back to it this way was nice. But yes, movies and drama and stuff like that I think is obviously in the future. It’s all part of the journey and this is where I am at the moment.

You and Melissa have known each other for quite some time. How do you guys maintain chemistry onscreen? You’re friends in real life, but you have to have a spark onscreen too.

Right. Well, you know that’s why we get paid the big bucks there. [laughs] It’s just all part of the job when you have to play certain characters. There are areas that you have to tap into, and you’ve got to pull from personal things in your life and try to use those in your job. I associate it to just putting myself into Joe Longo’s world. He’s attracted to her; therefore, I am as well as Joe Longo.

Joey Lawrence and the cast of “Melissa and Joey.”

You both also have younger kids. What’s it like raising tweens [on the show]?

I think that’s where the comedy comes from because these people are barely in their 30s themselves, and they have 16-year-olds running around. So, it’s really more of an uncle/aunt type relationship or an older sibling type of relationship. We’re trying to create some kind of normalcy for these teenagers with their parents either in jail or on the run. Yet at the same time when you’re 16-years-old you’re kind of baked. You’re who you’re going to be. It’s just a matter of the final toppings on the sundae there.  I think that we feel that responsibility to hopefully at least set a good example for them. It’s tough, being in our 30s, but we’re sort of on the young end of that, so I think that we’re still kids at heart and probably act like big kids at times. It’s a tough job. I wouldn’t know what it’s like other than the fact that my youngest sibling, Andy, is 12 years younger than me. So, growing up I was really more like an uncle to him than I was a brother because I took care of him and he looked up to me that way much more so than Matt, for instance. Matt and I are only three years apart, so you have all the much more the normal sibling stuff.

I wonder if you could talk about just how this project got started. I would assume your chemistry in My Fake Fiancé led to this?

Yes, I think so. My Fake Fiancé was something that we did together, and we had a good time. There were intangible things that happened, and I think that in the comedy world we just have this sort of innate timing that really works well. You never know why two people work well together in a certain genre or a certain type. I don’t know if it would be the same in drama, but certainly in the comedy world we just worked well. We had never worked with each other or anything like that. We had known each other, but when we were doing the movie, I think that we felt that – and I know the network, they were watching the dailies and stuff and they were feeling that. Then one thing led to another and before the movie was over, we were all thinking this might work to do a half hour comedy or something like that. And a year and a half later here we are. But definitely I think the initial idea came from My Fake Fiancé and that whole experience.

How different is it being the executive producer on a series like this? What does that exactly mean? Do you have more say into your character and how the show goes?

It’s awesome. You can’t be fired at all, which is great. [laughs] No, it does allow you a lot more creative control over how the show turns out at the end of the day. In this particular medium I have a lot of experience, so it’s not just like an actor grabbing at some power; it’s that I know as much as anybody does in this particular medium just because I’ve had so many years of experience. I think that it just helps when you’re not feeling great about something or if you have an idea about something that they’ve got to take it seriously. It’s not like an actor for hire. It’s a part of the team. If I was going to jump back into this world – to the half hour comedy world – I wanted to be a big part of the team rather than an actor for hire.

Joey Lawrence and the cast of “Melissa and Joey.”

With the teenage characters on the show, how involved are you in choosing some of their storylines and saying, you know what, I don’t want to go too dark with them and I don’t want to make them seem like they’re growing up too fast? As a parent of young kids do you feel like a role model for the younger audience that is watching?

We’re on the edgier side, so we’re not going to sugarcoat it, but at the same time it’s not the Disney Channel. It’s not for eight-year-olds. I would say minimum would be thirteen, just because of the content of the show. It’s a young adult comedy with teenagers, so it certainly wouldn’t be for six-year-olds, seven-year-olds, or eight-year-olds. It probably wouldn’t hurt them to watch it, but it’s not for them. In terms of the teenage stuff, we try to handle it responsibly, but part of the comedy is that Mel’s character is not responsible and that I’m there to shed some light on responsibility. That’s where some of the comedy comes from. So there are moments when there is not the right example set, but I think by the end of the half hour somehow you get a sense of either what should have happened or what will happen the next time. They’re not really parents and I think they’re both less developed in that area than I am in my personal life and Melissa is in her personal life, because we are young parents and they aren’t.

Why did you decide to keep your first name for your characters on the show?

Honestly, that was an ABC Family decision. They were emphatic and very passionate about that. Initially, believe it or not, the character names were Jack and Annie. But they did their marketing research and the brilliant minds over there in the ABC Family said, “Look, there are a lot of channels and a lot of choices, and we believe in this show and we want to make sure that people know what it is and we want to be able to cut through. And we really think that if we use your names, that that will be a no-brainer, people will know what this is and instantly there will recognizability for it.” We couldn’t disagree, even though I think Melissa and I were both sort of like, eh, at the beginning. But they gave us some examples and they said look, if you look back at some of the shows that have done this and it’s worked, to name a few, they said there’s Cosby and Roseanne and Seinfeld and Mary Tyler Moore, and after that you just kind of go, okay. But it was really for name recognition and marketing and so far, it’s really worked. I think they know a thing or two over there.

Melissa Joan Hart and Joey Lawrence in “Melissa and Joey.”

Your character on the show is a bit embarrassed by having the job as a nanny. What are your feelings are about playing a male nanny?

Look, every good dad and husband is part nanny. That’s part of the job, right? You have kids. I know that part of the domestic responsibilities; it’s a 50/50 road there. I’m doing laundry at home and cleaning up around the house and cooking meals, and that’s just the way it works. But I think that for this guy in particular it would be a little tough to go from making millions of dollars and basically having life at your fingertips to living in a basement apartment and cooking meals. It would be a transition, to say the least, and I think that’s where the comedy comes from for Joe Longo. That’s why he’s obsessed with the fact that he’s not actually working for her – he’s working with her and he’s freelance, so he thinks he can leave at any time he wants. He probably could, but he wouldn’t have anywhere to go. So, until he gets his feet back under him, that’s sort of the underlying theme. He’s going to use this job until he can trade again, which is five years from now, because he struck up a deal with the Feds to avoid jail time, but he can’t trade for five years. So, it would be tough, I think. Not because of the job but just because of where you came from to where you were at the moment.

What do you like best about your character, Joe Longo?

What do I like best? I like that he’s a guy’s guy. I like that he’s brutally honest. I sort of wanted to create him as a throwback because I didn’t think that this guy was on TV right now, this brutally honest kind of Bruce Willis from Moonlighting type guy who had a swagger and had a great heart. He’s just the kind of guy that if a woman asked him if she looked good or not in a dress, he would be perfectly honest and say, “Honestly, that one doesn’t look that great.” That’s the kind of guy that you think you’d hate, but at the end of the day I think you’d probably like him because he’s not saying it for malicious reasons but he’s saying it to be honest. Whereas, most guys would go, “No, honey, you look fine, you look great, you look wonderful.” But this guy would say it. I just wanted that guy back on TV. He’s a little politically incorrect. He’s kind of a unique combination because he’s very smart and made a lot of money and now he’s taking this job that he feels he’s really sucking it up for a minute until he gets his life back together. He’s a complex guy and I didn’t think that that guy was on TV, so that’s probably what I like best, that he’s just brutally honest.

Melissa Joan Hart and Joey Lawrence in “Melissa and Joey.”

The big question, whenever you do a romantic or a sexual tension sitcom, is do you put the couple together? Have you guys and the writers figured that out yet?

I think that this relationship is very similar to Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd in Moonlighting. It’s very similar to Ted Danson and Shelley Long/Kirstie Alley. It’s those love to hate, hate to love things, and if you get these two people together that starts to signify the show wrapping itself up. So, you’ve got to fight that for as long as you can, because if you give into that then it becomes syrupy and gives you cavities and then the comedy dies. So, it probably will happen, but hopefully we have an opportunity to be on for a while and it won’t happen for a while.

What does it feel like for you to work in front of a live audience? Do you find the energy is different having the immediate reaction from the fans?

Yes, I think that with this particular medium, the half hour comedy, I prefer it in front of a live audience, or at least some sort of hybrid version of it, just because I feel that a lot gets lost when there’s no live audience at all. It was really intended to be theater in a box. I mean, that’s what half hour comedy on TV was intended to be. As it’s grown and changed, I think that there’s a single camera format where you don’t have any audience. I think the live crowd keeps the show alive and moving along and keeps it bubbling under the surface, so to speak. I like that energy being in this format. It’s fun to watch and I think it makes you feel alive when you watch it. It is a rush, because it really is like theater. You get that great response when a joke works and you also don’t get a great response when a joke doesn’t work and you know and then you can change it, which is what we do. I don’t know; it’s a great experience.

Are there any personality traits in real life that have been infused into the characters?

You’ve got to put a little bit of yourself into all the characters that you portray. There are some similarities, but I’d say there are more things – especially in Joe Longo – that are not similar to me, but that’s what I enjoy. I enjoy playing that because that’s not the guy that I am essentially. But I do like the fact that he’s honest. I think we share that in common.

Joey Lawrence in “Melissa and Joey.”

Talking about families, both you and Melissa have young children and I’m just wondering how hard it is right now to balance the series and your families.

That’s really the challenge of any young parent with any job really. I’m not any different than any guy who’s an upstart lawyer or an investment banker or a construction worker or a teacher or anything like that. The toughest challenge in life is to balance being the best parent you can be and also succeeding as much as you can. Knowing that you’re doing it for your family, knowing that you’re doing it for college funds and to hopefully allow you and your wife to be able to spend your later years in somewhat of financial comfort. That’s what it’s all about. But that balance is probably the toughest thing in life, really, because it’s about switching gears constantly. You come home from a long day of work and there’s a lot of things on your mind and the normal stresses and anxieties and responsibilities of your work, and then bang, you walk through the door and it’s diaper changing and Phineas and Ferb and story time and bath time, and it’s just, wow. So, it’s not easy, but challenges are something that I feel are exciting and that I want to conquer, and this is certainly I think one of the largest ones that any person will ever have, really.